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Bur Oak on the Schulenberg Prairie

October 3, 2019

The old bur oak on the Schulenberg Prairie is a reminder to me of transitions and of stability. Of refuge and hope.

When we moved from out of state to a house just up the road from the Morton Arboretum two decades ago, we quickly became members. One of my first hikes was on the Schulenberg Prairie to an old bur oak.

As mom to two teenagers---with a husband who often traveled for business---I felt lost and displaced in my new home in the busy suburbs. At the Arboretum, I could walk, think, and find quiet places. At that time of my life, I didn’t know what a prairie was, but I knew a tree when I saw it. Seeing this magnificent bur oak as I visited the prairie regularly was a comforting touchstone for me. I began to believe that as time went on, I would put down roots here. 

The bur oak sheltered wildlife and provided a welcome bit of shade for hikers in the hot summer months. Red-tailed hawks often perched in its branches. I found common baskettail dragonflies flying around its perimeter and ruby-throated hummingbirds resting silently amid its distinctive leaves. In autumn, the bur oak shed its shaggy-capped acorns, sprinkling them through the big bluestem and Indian grass. Steel-blue winter skies were a foil for the oak’s craggy silhouette.

I began taking natural history classes at the Arboretum, and learned more. I discovered that throughout history, the  bur oak’s corky bark was its signature armor for staying alive through Midwestern prairie fires. The bur oak earned its place as one of the few trees that might live on a prairie because of this adaptation.

Later, after taking many classes at the Arboretum and earning my master’s degree in natural resources, I became a prairie steward on the Schulenberg. I watched the bur oak stand strong as the prescribed burns we set flamed across the prairie. Its survival, year after year, reminded me that I could withstand the losses and changes that life dispenses. 

Today, the prairie and its bur oak have been the foundation for the writing, teaching, and speaking I do both at The Morton Arboretum and around the Chicago region. My books, By Willoway Brook, Waiting for Morning, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, and Tallgrass Conversations all have stories about trees and include the amazing prairie and savanna at the Morton Arboretum with its tremendous old bur oak.

When I hike the prairie today, I think of those first encounters. Today, I’m a grandmother of six. The bur oak still stands, strong and sheltering, offering its shade and branches as a refuge for people and wildlife. It’s also given birth to smaller bur oak trees that  continue its legacy here.

The bur oak reminds me that trees offer us more than just pretty landscape features. They are solace, refuge, beauty, encouragement, inspiration, and muse. They are hope for the future.

Cindy Crosby is a prairie steward supervisor, a dragonfly monitor, a certified interpretive trainer with NAI, and a naturalist. Cindy regularly leads prairie walks at The Morton Arboretum. Learn more about the bur oak tree featured in this story. 

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